the principal spring in a mechanism, as in a watch.
the chief motive power; the impelling cause.

1585–95; main1 + spring Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
mainspring (ˈmeɪnˌsprɪŋ)
1.  the principal power spring of a mechanism, esp in a watch or clock
2.  the chief cause or motive of something

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Example sentences
If you're not looking at the mainspring, you're only operating on the surface.
Preclusive action, not private profit, has been the mainspring of imperialism.
The mechanical timer is a verge type, three-gear timer, powered by a torsional
Drugs are a lucrative business and a mainspring of global criminal activity.
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